Revolution #198, April 11, 2010
Some Observations on the Culture Wars:
Sham Shakespearean Tragedies
and Crude Lies
On the Texas Textbook Battles
I recently read a very significant article in the New York Times (Thursday, March 11, 2010), "Texas Conservatives Seek Deeper Stamp on Texts." And ABC news also did a feature story on this subject. What is involved are moves by Texas "conservatives" to change social studies curriculum to make it (even more) overtly reactionary. A driving force among these "conservatives" is a "young earth creationist" who actually insists, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old! You really have to read this article to see what lengths, or extremes, this is going to. To give a further "taste," these "conservatives" are insisting on including, in textbooks, the words of Jefferson Davis, head of the slave-owning Confederacy in the Civil War, side by side with quotes from Abraham Lincoln. Their aim is not to expose and condemn Jefferson Davis but rather to lend status and respectability to what he represented. "Fascist" is certainly not too strong a word to describe these "conservative" forces.
As the word "Deeper" in the title of the Times article suggests, Texas is already a major "trend-setter" for public school textbooks in the U.S. It is striking that, among other things, these "conservatives" not only want to more thoroughly reverse the verdicts of the 1960s about the U.S. and its role in the world, including as the influence of these verdicts gets reflected—even though in a watered-down way—in school curriculum, but they also want to reverse the verdict on the Civil War—treating the Confederate slave system as deserving of legitimacy and respect! This is a salient illustration of the point that is made by citing the observations of Hubert Locke in "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution," and more generally the analysis (in that talk and elsewhere) about "the coming civil war"—about the current polarization, within the ruling class as well as in American society more broadly, and the challenges of repolarization...for revolution.1
What a world! What a system and what a ruling class where "young earth creationists" and other reactionary cretins are allowed to have a major impact in influencing what is taught in the public schools—and apparently no higher political (ruling class) authority is willing or able to step in and declare, and act decisively to effect, that this cannot and will not be allowed, that it is simply impermissible for dangerous lunacy like this to be promoted as public policy and for people who promote such lunacy to sit on influential decision-making bodies.
All this provides yet another profound illustration of the fact that this ruling class has objectively forfeited any right to rule and to determine the direction of society—and to significantly influence the course of the world and the fate of humanity overall.
Note that an "overhaul" of public education is clearly a major objective of the Obama administration (see, for example, the front-page article in the New York Times, Sunday, March 14, 2010, "Obama Proposes Sweeping Change in Education Law," referring specifically to No Child Left Behind). But I see no evidence that Obama, et al., are gearing up for battle against these Christian (and other) Fascists around the issues I have pointed to here.
* * *
Adding to this Texas Textbook outrage is an article by Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times, on the front page of the "Week in Review" section (Sunday, March 21, 2010), "In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right." This piece enshrines and in effect celebrates relativism and identity politics—specifically in relation to this Texas Textbook outrage. It does this as an expression of the interests not of the petit bourgeois democratic intellectual but of the bourgeois ruling class of the U.S., in the framework of the specific historical development of the capitalist-imperialist system in this country, with its "peculiar institution" of slavery, and everything that has flowed from—or developed as a consequence of—that, down to the present. Here again, you really have to read this article to see how grotesque it is. As a basic way of exposing what it is putting forward, this question can be posed:
Is opposing, or on the other hand actually upholding, slavery—and other egregious injustices perpetrated as part of the development of the dominant system in this country—really just a matter of different "narratives"? Or is there not, in fact, objective reality and truth and a basis for clear-cut moral certitude in relation to these things?
A related, and very important point is this:
For humanity to advance beyond a state in which "might makes right"—and where things ultimately come down to raw power relations—will require, as a fundamental element in this advance, an approach to understanding things (an epistemology) which recognizes that reality and truth are objective and do not vary in accordance with, nor depend on, different "narratives" and how much "authority" an idea (or "narrative") may have behind it, or how much power and force can be wielded on behalf of any particular idea or "narrative," at any given point.
The Movies/the "Oscars"/the Sphere of Culture
Check out the opinion piece by Ross Douthat, "Hollywood's Political Fictions," (New York Times, Monday, March 15, 2010). This piece is itself a grotesque example of political fiction—or, more baldly put, the lie that the invasion of Iraq was not rationalized by lies of the first order but rather resulted from a much more complex and nuanced process, a real Shakespearean tragedy, wherein "even many of the invasion's opponents" believed that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), and that this posed "a real danger to world peace." Here we see, once again, reality turned on its head, so that truth is reduced to indecipherable murkiness, while lies become...well, something that any decent person (even opponents of the invasion of Iraq) could actually have believed. To restore some clarity, let's turn things rightside up, and review some essential facts. The truth is that, by the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were very clear indications and mounting evidence that there were no WMDs in Iraq, that Bush, et al., were determined to go to war in any case, and that they went to war precisely when ongoing investigation, by UN inspectors, was heading in the direction of revealing that there were no WMDs. The lies involved the insistence, by Bush, and other key officials in the Bush regime, that it was a fact that there were such WMDs—lies which they persisted in repeating, even as there was mounting evidence that there were no WMDs.
The kind of "rhetorical gymnastics" that Douthat engages in is a shame-faced variation of the apologias for the imperialists. When they are not only caught committing war crimes—and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as many things done as part of this invasion and occupation, certainly do constitute war crimes on the part of the U.S. imperialists and their military—but, on top of that, when the rationalizations for these war crimes are shown to be outright lies, all of a sudden their stock in trade, essentially comic book depictions of good and evil with which they normally bombard us—"good guys" and "bad guys"—are replaced, especially when speaking to more "sophisticated" audiences, by ersatz existentialism about complexity and nuance!
A particular target of this piece by Douthat is the movie The Green Zone, which he lambastes in these terms: "[I]t refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comfort of a 'Bush lied, people died' reductionism"!!
Never mind that "Bush lied, people died" is very much to the point, and captures much of the essence of the matter. No, insists Douthat, it is more meaningful to indulge in empty references to "real tragedy" in a way that avoids and evades the truth. And—surprise, surprise—one of Douthat's main devices is to contrast The Green Zone with... (you'll know if you've been paying attention these days...) The Hurt Locker. Here is Douthat again:
"Such glib scapegoating [as in The Green Zone] looks particularly lame in the wake of last week's triumph for The Hurt Locker, the first major movie to paint the Iraq War in shades of gray. But The Hurt Locker, of course, was largely apolitical. Throw politics into the mix, and there seems to be no escaping the cliches and simplifications that mar [movies like The Green Zone, and other films about the Iraq war that Douthat deems insufficiently 'gray']."
In fact, Douthat—and the ruling class for whom people like Douthat are shills—may well be concerned that the opposite is the case: that, with the attractive force of Matt Damon, and the "Bourne" movies with which he is associated, The Green Zone might undercut, for a significant and somewhat diverse audience, the effect that The Hurt Locker (and the awarding of "Oscars" to it, and its director) were intended to have. That The Green Zone could draw too much attention back to the matter of WMDs, and more specifically the lies about WMDs that were wielded to rationalize the invasion of Iraq. And that this would undermine the attempts to say, "Whatever the reasons were for getting into this war, we are there now and we just have to make the best of it" (a line pushed not only by the "neo-cons" but also by the likes of Obama) and the related attempts to focus attention on the hardships, and the supposed heroism, of the American forces of invasion and occupation, as part of the effort to engender sympathy and support for them—and, by extension, support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as the other wars the U.S. imperialists are waging, or are increasingly involving themselves in, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Every part of the above passage from Douthat's piece—and indeed the piece as a whole—is itself a rather crude (not at all "gray") distortion, where it is not an outright lie. And here, once again, we find the typical "logic" of the camp followers of the imperialist ruling class. When things in the realm of culture run counter to the interests of the imperialist ruling class, the accusation is frequently made that this is a matter of "injecting politics" and of doing so in an inappropriate and crude way (this applies not only to works of art but other dimensions of culture as well, such as sports—think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics2). On the other hand, anything which upholds or serves the imperialist interests of this ruling class is not condemned as "political" but treated as just conveying "common sense" or "what everybody knows" or what any honest and decent person would believe and be motivated by, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
While I have not seen The Hurt Locker nor The Green Zone (although, given the content of the attacks on it, by Douthat and others, I am anxious to see the latter, as soon as I am in a position to do so), I have read a number of articles, in various publications, about both movies, and it is clear from this, as well as from watching the Academy Awards, what the essential difference is between them: The Green Zone (with whatever limitations we might recognize in it) runs counter to the "official narrative" about the basis on which the Iraq invasion was carried out—a narrative that has, at least in some circumstances, undergone a transmutation from "it is a certainty that Saddam Hussein has WMDs and is still trying to hide them, and this poses a grave danger that cannot be allowed to continue," to Douthat-style hand-wringing about the Shakespearean tragedy of it all—whereas The Hurt Locker reinforces this "official narrative," even if perhaps somewhat subtly, and therefore all the more insidiously, through portraying the supposed "courage" and righteousness of the invading and occupying U.S. forces and, by extension at least, the "justness" of the invasion and occupation themselves. This is made all the more clear by the remarks of the director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, in receiving the Academy Awards for best picture and best director—most pointedly Bigelow's statement, referring explicitly to the U.S. troops in Iraq as well as Afghanistan: They are there for us, and we are here for them.
Once again, when the imperialists are caught in the commission of war crimes—and lies to rationalize those war crimes—perhaps it is not surprising that the "color" of the apologias, particularly those aimed at more "sophisticated" audiences, changes from "purple" declamations about "good guys" and "bad guys" to "gray" dissertations about the murky complexity of it all—a murkiness through which, however, the essential courage and righteousness of "our side" somehow shines through.
As I previously wrote to some people: It certainly seems that influential forces (within and very likely beyond the Academy) were at work to have The Hurt Locker prevail over Avatar—to have the message associated with The Hurt Locker (especially as that was conveyed by the director of that movie) drown out the message of Avatar—to have "support the troops" rewarded, in opposition to what is conveyed through Avatar, where a military clearly recognizable as representative of the brute and plundering force of an invading and occupying imperialism is soundly and righteously defeated, not by other reactionary and oppressive forces but by the waging of a people's war.
1. Dr. Hubert Locke's speech, "Reflections on Pacific School of Religion's Response to the Religious Right" appeared in Revolution #32 (January 29, 2006). "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution" can be found in its entirety at revcom.us/Avakian/driving and was serialized in Revolution issues #184-197 (November 29, 2009-April 4, 2010). The reference to Dr. Locke's speech is in the fourth part of "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution," Revolution #187 (December 27, 2009). [back]
2. See "1968 Olympics: Striking a Blow for Freedom, The Courageous Story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos," Revolution #136, July 20, 2008. [back]